Dinah helps the healing begin

Therapy dog at Homme Youth and Family Programs
Miriam Nelson | NEW Media

Homme Youth and Family Programs therapist Rita Berkley has the help of her therapy dog, Dinah, three days a week. Together they help the boys on campus deal with their emotions.
Miriam Nelson
Wittenberg-Birnamwood News Editor

WITTENBERG — Who can be there for you when you don’t have the words to express your emotions?

Dinah, the therapy dog at Homme Youth and Family Programs, Wittenberg, can provide a service not many humans can offer in times of trouble and that is unconditional love.

A 45-pound golden retriever, Dinah meets with the boys three days a week and even participates in group sessions. She can provide a sense of understanding and acceptance which many of the residents have never felt in their young lives.

Therapist Rita Berkley acquired Dinah eight years ago when she was just an eight-week old puppy. Even though she knew the breed was good for hunting and therapy, it was just a dream that Dinah might eventually become a therapy dog. Having joined this profession so late in her life, retrievers live 12-16 years, Dinah has the added benefit of being very calm.

Berkley joined the Homme staff about a year and a half ago, but it wasn’t until this year that she put Dinah through the certification process required by Therapeutic Dogs International. She needed to go through a six-week obedience training course offered Monday nights in Antigo.

Dinah then needed to pass a personality test. By doing a personality profile, trainers are able to assess if the dog gets along well with other dogs, humans, buildings and situations.

The dogs can’t be hyper or a nuisance. Not every dog who passes obedience training is suitable for being a therapy dog.

Generally, court ordered to be at Homme, about 100% of the boys have been sexually abused and about 70% have been offenders. A staggering statistic, but one that Berkley likes to point out when she meets with the boys to help let them know they are not facing these issues alone.

Dinah is there to help comfort them when therapy gets too intense or their feelings make it seem safer for them to shut down. Dinah provides that link back to reality.

Most of the boys are at Homme for nine months to a year to work through their treatment program. According to Berkley the experience requires individual, group and family therapy. Currently Homme is running at almost full capacity, with a waiting list for some treatment programs.

Homme has 12 boys in the Acceptance program. These boys are 14-21 years of age and part of the goal is to prepare them to work and interact in society. The 12 boys in Nelson Hall are 10-14 years old and the primary focus is getting them integrated back into a safe family environment. The boys in Quest are cognitively delayed, autistic or have a mental illness diagnosis and need more specialized attention so they keep that population at eight boys.

As one of Homme’s four therapists, Berkley picks the boys from each unit that can best respond to nonverbal therapy, generally the younger ones who can benefit from more one on one attention. Dinah helps out when there are no words to express the feelings a boy may have because of the trauma he’s been through.

Dinah is just present for the boys. She works Mondays, Wednesday and Fridays in the office with Berkley.

“A lot of times the kids while in a therapy session will be reacting to the process and when the kid starts stressing out or shutting down, Dinah senses that and goes to them,” Berkley said. “She will put her nose under their hand. They won’t reject her the way they would another person.”

Berkley will tell the boys when they’re angry and start acting out that Dinah can’t handle the anger or violence and they calm dawn. Dinah is never used as a reward for good behavior.

Occasionally Berkley will take Dinah to the units just to play. She is also available to the other therapists.

Berkley is from the suburban Chicago area. She has a master of arts and expressive art therapy and is currently working towards her doctorate in human behavior, counseling. She is a registered art therapist. Berkley has worked off and on in residential programs and in home counseling for over 25 years. Now that she is an empty-nester, she is glad to be back in this type of work.

“I never could have done this kind of therapy when I was working full time and a single mother, “ Berkley said, “but am glad I am back doing it at this stage in my life.”